MAYA PORT OF SARTENEJA

The Mayan port of Sarteneja was a significant Maya city in the archeological region of Corozal Bay, Belize. During its peak Sarteneja would have been widely known within Maya civilisation as a part of the trade corridor between the Northern Highlands and the eastern Yucatan Peninsula.

The name Sarteneja is derived from the Yucatan Maya “Tzaten‐a‐Ha”, which is thought to translate as “water in the rock”, referring to the numerous shallow wells dug through the limestone.

The Mayan port of Sarteneja may include more than 500 structures. The site core being located 0.5 to 1.0km inland from the current shoreline. The current shoreline at Sarteneja has eroded inland as shown by Mayan burials being exposed in eroding shorelines.

Ceramics from the region suggest that the whole area of now present day Sarteneja was a small coastal settlement from the Late Preclassic (100 AD).  By 100 AD the population of the Sartenejan region, and interaction with surrounding Mayan regions began to grow significantly. Driven by greater population and increased trade over a wider area, Sarteneja reached its peak during the period from the end of the Late Preclassic (AD 250) to the Terminal Classic (800 to 1000 AD (Raymond Sidry, 1974, see Mayan archeological periods), and continued into the Post-Classic probably up to the time of the Spanish invasion see Sartenejan History  The Maya were possibly first attracted to the site for small scale fisheries and agricultural production and as a stopover in the maritime trade route.

The Sartenejan region is rich with Mayan sites. In the late 1980’s an archaeological study carried out in Sarteneja demonstrated that the area was once a prosperous seaport, central to trade between the interior Guatemala, the Belizean and Guatemalan coastlines, the Yucatan Peninsula.

Sarteneja appears to be a vital node on a curcumpeninsula maritime exchange network that involved the shipment of raw materials, finished objects, and ideologies from areas as distant as Mexico,  and Naco, Honduras (Boxt and Christensen, 1985).

During the Postclassic Sarteneja traded with the great Mayan cities along the eastern Yucatan Peninsula, Talum and Mayapan, and inland to central Guatemala. 

The discovery of imported artifacts such as obsidian prismatic blades, hammer stones, and pottery with stylistic affinities with those from Mayapan and Tulum on the northern Yucatan Peninsula clearly demonstrates that the Sartenejan Maya interacted directly or indirectly with distant cultures of Mesoamerica. 

These objects show that Sarteneja was a centre for long distance and regional trading, being an important stop over point for merchants and travelers. Sarteneja was a cross road for people traveling between Mexico, the Belizean coral reef, and the Corozal region.

Sarteneja may have serviced four regional ecosystems, Chetumal Bay, the Caribbean sea and barrier reef, Shipstern Lagoon, and the cities terrestrial environments. Large trading vessels would have sailed the waters of Corozal Bay.

A narrow channel that separates Ambergris Caye from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, as the Belizean/Mexico border was cut by the Maya 1500 years ago. Adjacent are the ruins of Chac Balam an important Maya trading center that would have had close affinities with Sarteneja.

Sarteneja would have also been closely involved in terrestrial and riverine trade. Sarteneja was situated near the presumed termination of the New River and Rio Hondo trade routes, whose points of origin may have been El Petan, the Guatemalan highlands, or as far away as the Central Mexican Plateau.

Together the archeological and geographic evidence suggests that Sarteneja could have monitored or controlled procurement and distribution of local and regional resources during the Terminal Classic and Postclassic periods. Sarteneja appears to be a regular port and rest area for the Postclassic trading expeditions that ventured from Mexico's Gulf Coast southward to Honduras (Boxt and Christensen, 1985).

There is evidence of Maya settlement throughout Sarteneja Village but most has been reduced to small mounds or individual rocks. Within miles of Sarteneja there is a network of roads, small settlements, and ceremonial sites. Most of these sites are almost unexplored and visitors are welcome to engage in exploratory tours. see Sarteneja Attractions

Sarteneja and the Mayan cities surrounding Sarteneja were abandoned shortly after the Spanish invasion in 1650. The Maya had to be fought region by region as the Maya had no central city such as the Aztecs. However, Lamanai, about 120 km from Sarteneja was occupied from 400BC to 1650AD and is one of the longest lasting and most enduring Maya cities. The Maya now comprise a population of 6 to 8 million.

Other nearby Maya cities on the coast were Ceros (25 km - NW), Corozal (45km - NNW), Bacalar Chico (70 km - E), and Chetumal (90 km - N).

From the headwaters of the New River toward Corozal Bay there are the Maya centers of Lamanai (120 km ESE), Orange Walk (70 km, WSW), and Chunox (30 km, W) as the river winds coast ward.

Lamanai was one of the last surviving Maya cities at the time of European invasion. Lamanai is located on a lake in the New River, Belize, and was supported by a very extensive wetland on the opposite side of the lake. This wetland was used for irrigation supported horticulture and could provide food for a large population and perhaps some security against drought.

Lamanai was also on a major riverine trade route, the New River, which would have helped stabilise its economy even in difficult times. Produce would have been traded between Lamanai and Sarteneja, as the New River enters Corozal Bay close to Sarteneja. see Lamanai

Although all the Maya cities surrounding Sarteneja have a long history of exploration, the Maya history of Sarteneja remains relatively unexplored and mysterious. There are even Maya sites hidden close by in the jungle that are rarely visited even by the local people.

For the adventurous, special hiking tours to explore Maya heritage can be arranged. There are also several easily accessible and fascinating Maya sites within kilometers of the outskirts of Sarteneja including a plaza, mounds, remains of Maya villages, and a large cenote for swimming.

see list of Sartenejan Tourism > Mayan Sites

Mathew A. Boxt and Wes Christensen. 1985. A Maya bone carving from Sarteneja, Belize. Journal of New World Archeology. 5 (4): 1-12.